A carfree city is a population center that relies primarily on public transport, walking, or cycling for transport within the urban area. Districts where motorized vehicles are prohibited are referred to as carfree zones. Carfree city models have gained traction due to current issues with congestion and infrastructure, and proposed environmental and quality of life benefits. Currently in Asia, Europe and Africa, many cities continued to have carfree areas due to inception before the origin of the automobile. Many developing cities in Asia are currently using the proposed model to modernize its infrastructure.
A city can be fully or partly carfree. Cities that are fully carfree prohibit all use of private cars in the city limits, while cities that are partly carfree have carfree zones but allow some private car use in other areas. These zones tend to be focused around the city center. Carfree city projects are designed around the needs of people rather than cars, with careful zoning that increases pedestrian mobility and efficient structural placement.
While there is no specific blueprint for designing a carfree city, many cities around the world have found success with variants of the following model.
An idyllic carfree city consists of 2 zones: a residential core and service based periphery. The core consists of residences and living quarters within a public space in the center. In order to reduce motor traffic in this area, walking serves as the primary mode of transportation with cycling routes open as an addition. As a result, there is less conflict between motorized traffic and residences. A pedestrian and bicycle network also gradually emerges, joining several parts of the city.
The periphery, which encapsulates the residential core, is composed of services and facilities such as supermarkets and gyms. The distances between these facilities and the core are determined by the frequency of usage, with the more frequently used lying closest to the city center. These facilities will be decentralized around the city, with the goal to reduce walking distances, improve residential access, and minimize the need for new road infrastructure. An alternative to a decentralized configuration is a central public transport stop surrounded by dense shops and services that provide for easy public access without walking.
Outside the carfree city lies transportation zones and car parks to be used by the city residences. Car parks outside the city square provide access to the periphery of the city, but bar access to the core. Often, parkings are created at the outskirts of the city to allow people to park their car there, and/or take an alternative means of transport into town ("park and ride"). These networks allow for logistical components such as centralized import/export and waste collection.
Motivations for the transition to (or creation of) a carfree city include a reduction in air pollution and noise pollution, as well as the ability to reallocate land previously used for vehicle infrastructure such as parking lots and wide roads. Particularly in developing countries, the current infrastructures are not able to keep up with the increase of private vehicles, even after optimization and new construction of roadways.
Regarding the environmental impacts, reducing the number of cars concentrated in an urban area can improve air quality and reduce noise. It is believed that vehicular pollution causes approximately 184,000 deaths around the world, and keeping cars out of heavily populated areas could reduce the impact of this pollution. Additionally, future plans of implementing superblocks in Barcelona could reduce the amount of the residential population exposed to noise pollution greater than 65 dB from 42.5% to 26.5%.
Regarding the ability to reallocate land, around 70% of downtown land in several U.S. cities is allocated for use by cars. The removal of parking lots and other car-heavy areas not only alleviates the air and noise pollution but provides the opportunity for land to be used for other purposes. If land is reallocated properly, it could also reduce the urban heat island effect, which occurs when concrete and asphalt replace greenery in an area, resulting in increased temperatures due to albedo and other effects. In developing countries such as Vietnam, efforts to curb traffic through optimization of roadways, building of new infrastructure, and change in policies have not been able to alleviate motorized flow. There is traction to introduce a new carfree city model that would allow for improving the quality of life while meeting the logistical needs of all residents.
Current efforts to transform congested cities into carfree cities requires a few logistical and societal measures such as consultation meetings with all stakeholders, such as town halls, using computer modelling and measuring traffic before and after road closures, and enforcing restrictions once the plan is in place. Many cities undergoing transformation in the EU have outlined their guidelines from pre-implementation consultation, to design, to post implementation.
After the closing down of streets and squares to personal car traffic, a pedestrian and bicycle network gradually emerges and joins several parts of the city. Similarly, prompted by the same need to avoid conflicts with car traffic and enhance pedestrian movement, pedestrian networks have emerged below street level (underground city) or above road-level to connect large downtown areas as in the Minneapolis Skyway System. For new areas on the fringe of cities or new towns, two new complementary ideas have emerged. The concept of Filtered Permeability (2007) and a model for planning towns and subdivisions - the Fused Grid (2003). Both focus on shifting the balance of network design in favor of pedestrian and bicycle mobility.
The direct impacts of carfree urban designs include enhancing air quality from pollutants as a result of the combustive process used in many motor vehicles, reducing noise pollution and ground vibrations from the engine and vehicle use, and reducing the urban heat island effect. Another impact would be the reduction of pedestrian and cyclist collisions. Indirectly, through efficient, sustainable use of resources and faster transport of goods and people, carfree cities aim to improve quality of life for residents.
Environmental impacts include a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases as well as improvements in noise levels. After limiting the access of cars to the city center in Madrid, nitrogen oxide levels fell by 38% and carbon dioxide fell by 14.2% in the city center. These emissions also fell across the whole city of Madrid by 9% for nitrogen oxide and 2% for carbon dioxide. Additionally, levels of ambient noise that are associated with vehicular traffic can be reduced by implementing carfree zones, as seen by the reduction in noise pollution of 10 dB that occurs in Brussels on carfree Sundays.
Residents of carfree areas are able to benefit from an increase in green space and an improved economy. In Madrid, limiting the access of cars to the city center resulted in increasing consumer spending by 9.5% on the main shopping street and by 3.3% across all of Madrid. Additionally, residents of carfree zones in the Netherlands have benefited from increased real estate values, however, the neighboring non-carfree zones have had to deal with the spillover due to cars being unable to park in the carfree areas. This brings into prominence the necessity of adequate parking near these zones and the question of whether these zones are inequitable. Also, carfree designs limit transport options. Cities vary in their degree of automobile dependency, and urban structure tends to follow a concentric zone model. Thus, people living in suburbs and exurbs might gain little benefit and lose convenient access to the inner city, in redevelopment schemes for central and wealthy residential areas.
The individual impacts relate to the revitalisation of the space encouraging people to be more physically active, whether that be for commuting, for exercise or for leisure. By decreasing urban sprawl, mental health implications are perceived to improve due to less social and aesthetic issues caused by the segregation and isolation in car dependent societies. This leads to an enhanced sense of community, or belonging, as well as perceived 'ownership', mitigating sociological tension, and further enhancing public wellbeing.
Many older cities in Europe, Asia, and Africa were founded centuries before the advent of the automobile. Many continue to have carfree areas in the oldest parts of the city – especially in areas where it is impossible for cars to fit, e.g., in narrow alleys.
The city of Venice serves as an example of how a modern city can function completely without cars. This design was unintentional as the city was founded over 1,500 years ago, a long time before the invention of the automobile. Visitors who drive to the city or residents who own a car must park their car in a carpark outside of the city and then proceed either by foot or train into the city. The predominant method of transportation in the city is by foot, however motorized waterbuses (vaporetti) which travel the city's canals are also available.
As part of the city council's 2014 Urban Mobility Plan, Barcelona, Spain, has implemented nine city block wide pedestrian-only spaces, known as "superblocks". The perimeters of these blocks remain open to all cars and city buses, while the interior only allows local traffic that must travel under 10 mph. The city's government cites several aims for this plan, including more sustainable mobility and a revitalization of public spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic gave birth to proposals for radical change in the organisation of Barcelona, such as the Manifesto for the Reorganisation of the City after COVID19, published in Barcelona and signed by 160 academics and 300 architects, being the elimination of the car one of the key elements.
Since the 1970s, Nuremberg, Germany, has closed major traffic corridors in phases, amounting to a largely carfree city center. In 1988, the city closed the last through-way through the center of the city on a trial basis. With a year, this transformation reduced overall traffic flow by 25% and increased air quality significantly. The removal of cars from the city center was accompanied with the renovation of buildings and installation of new art pieces, producing an appealing pedestrian precinct.
As of 2021, the city of Heidelberg, Germany, according to the New York Times, "is buying a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses, building a network of bicycle 'superhighways' to the suburbs and designing neighborhoods to discourage all vehicles and encourage walking." An incentive of one year of free public transportation is given to any car owner who gives up their car.
In Ghent, Belgium, a circulation plan has been initiated and now the entire city heart (35 hectares) is partially carfree. Sections exist where cars can drive as well as sections that are car-free. In some sections, public transport, taxis and permit holders may enter but they may not exceed 20 km/h. A parking route exists around the city center, employing a parking guidance system to ensure access to all parts of the city and underground parking garages. The transition to carfree has significantly reduced traffic congestion and increased the use of other modes of transport, such as bikes and public transportation.
Masdar City, United Arab Emirates, is a futuristic city designed with eco-friendly principles in mind. Masdar City adopted a carfree philosophy as part of its fundamental basis of being an eco-city. Personal cars are eliminated from the street spaces, in favour of a walkable city design, and use of its autonomous personal rapid transit network for public transportation over greater distances.
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